Bravely eschewing my hatred of over-sentimentality in film, I sat down to Tate Taylor’s adaptation of the best-selling novel The Help with a heaping dose of skepticism and found that, by the end, I had been deeply moved.
The preternaturally gifted Viola Davis, who went head-to-head with Meryl Streep in a scene of extraordinary power in Doubt, is Aibileen, an emotionally beaten-down maid in 1963 Mississippi. Aibileen trudges through her days polishing silver and raising her Caucasian family’s daughter, even as she silently mourns the death of her own son, a tragedy gone cruelly unnoticed by the white folk in town. Well, all but one: Emma Stone, whose face could light up the White House Christmas tree, notices. She is Eugenia, aka Skeeter, too smart by half, and grossly appalled at how the town’s rich, white housewives treat their maids. It shouldn’t be too offensive for me to say that these women are a bunch of bitches. Led by Bryce Dallas Howard as a truly evil monster, the women are a constant flurry of bridge games and society functions, barking orders to their servants and treating them viciously when they step out of line. The women even hold a benefit for a non-white organization, taking to the podium to accept accolades for their “charity” while the black staff, who bore the physical burden of the event, stand against the wall, unsmiling and recognized with only a smattering of applause.
Skeeter, an aspiring writer, decides to pen a book from the perspective of the maids. How do these women feel about their pre-civil rights treatment by a town that regards them as less than human? And who will agree to talk to her on the record, anyway? Aibileen says she’s in, as long as it’s anonymous, and brings along, with a little coaxing, a dozen of her friends. One of them is Minny (Octavia Spencer in an astonishingly great performance), a feisty, smart-mouthed maid, recently fired for using her family’s “white toilet.” The thrust of The Help appears, on the outset, to be about Aibileen. But soon enough, Minny’s story becomes a second important arc. With as much pluck as she can muster, Minny raises her five kids in a small shack, all the while warding off blows from her abusive husband. Unable to find a job, she has no choice but to accept a position with the wealthy, if incredibly ditzy, housewife, Celia, played by the ever-present Jessica Chastain. Celia has her own issues. For example, no maid in town will take her. The women of Jackson hate her because they think she’s white trash and a husband-stealer (all untrue). She’s as alienated as Minny, for reasons not unsimilar, and together the women form a bond that is one of the great treasures of the movie.
What happens with the book, and the stories that fill its pages, I’ll leave for you to discover. I will offer that the journey is as heart-breaking as it is warming. By the end, we’ve come to love some of these women, and despise others. Some of them we even pity. But our great fondness is for Aibileen and Minny. The Help is powerful not because it leaves us with any greater understanding of one of the darkest periods of our nation’s history, but because it takes the time to draw each of these women in terms of what they are willing to do to have their voices heard. Skeeter is the impetus for change here, and her courage should be admired. But she’s not the real hero. The maids of Jackson have, in the end, put far more than their anger and frustration on the table: they’ve wagered their lives and the lives of their families, and that is more than just courageous. It’s some kind of miracle.